Winning becomes a habit, we want to continue: Jamshedpur FC coach Owen Coyle

A meal together, a couple of drinks and that was it, said Owen Coyle. Monday nights are not usually party nights but that was not why Jamshedpur FC (JFC) kept it simple after topping the league phase with a 1-0 win against ATK Mohun Bagan, a result that also earned them the right to represent India in the 2023 Asian Champions League.

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“We didn’t want it to be too long because we had a recovery session the following day,” said Coyle. The first of the double-leg semi-final against Kerala Blasters is on Friday.

Since joining the Indian Super League (ISL) in 2017-18, this was the first time JFC were among the top four. Reason enough to rest on laurels? Coyle doesn’t dismiss the possibility before saying why that shouldn’t happen.

“It was great that we had a game against ATK Mohun Bagan from which we still needed a positive result (to win the league) to keep the focus. We have proven that we are the best team in India by a good degree: the most points, the best defence, scoring goals, young Indian players improving,” said Coyle. Hyderabad FC scored one more goal than JFC, 43 to 42, but on all other metric, the Scot was right. And he didn’t mention that JFC got there with seven successive wins, an ISL record.

“Having got something tangible for our efforts, we want more. Winning becomes a habit, we want to continue and winning trophies becomes a habit. So don’t stop now that we are the champions of the league, let’s go and win this playoff as well.”

Coyle took charge last season with the aim of getting JFC to where they had never gone. They finished sixth, four points adrift of fourth-placed FC Goa. “I had inherited half of that squad and with all due respect, some of them were not my players in respect to how I build my team and the qualities I need,” he said.

So, in his third season in India, Coyle knew “the steps we had to take, not only to make the play-off but to try and be the top team in the country.” Enter Pronay Halder, Ritwick Das, Ishan Pandita among others. Enter also Jordan Murray, Daniel Chima Chukwu in January— “the qualities he had, I knew would be fantastic to what we want to do,” said Coyle—and Greg Stewart.

‘Stewart best player in ISL’

As always, Coyle is earnest and eager to talk about football. It goes up a gear in this Teams call from Goa when the conversation shifts to Stewart. The former Republic of Ireland international and Premier League coach first talks about how he went about finding out about Stewart. Steven Gerrard, Stewart’s coach at Scottish Premiership champions Rangers, Gary McAllister, their director of football who has since moved with Gerrard to Aston Villa, Scotland coach Steven Clarke and Derek McInnes, who managed Aberdeen when Stewart played for them, were among those he spoke to, said Coyle.

“I knew about his ability, I just wanted to know about him as a man. I gained knowledge about how he is as a boy,” said Coyle. Satisfied, Coyle called Stewart. The gist of his pitch to a man who had won the Scottish league and wasn’t yet looking for a retirement plan was this: you have been a champion, now come and help me and be a champion again.

JFC aren’t easy spenders so Coyle told Stewart, “You may get more elsewhere but you wouldn’t want to be in a mid-table team somewhere.” In two days last July, he had got his man.

Stewart, 31, has 10 goals and 10 assists, the only player in the league to get to double digits in both columns. He has scored from free-kicks, the one that bent into Prabshukan Gill’s goal found place in The Guardian’s website and won’t be happy memories for Kerala Blasters, and he has scored them from open play.

“Off the park with all the other players he is terrific. When you play for Glasgow Rangers or Celtic, you are not allowed to not win games. He has got that mentality. And I knew that would rub off on the other players,” said Coyle. “I know there are some terrific foreign players in ISL8 but I think Greg Stewart is the best player in the league.”

But good as Stewart has been, along with Peter Hartley, Alex Lima and JFC’s other imports, it is the performance of Indian players—some young and many cast off by other clubs—that made JFC such a cohesive unit. Halder is a case in point. Loaned from ATK Mohun Bagan, the India central midfielder had a good league phase, his best coming on Monday when he helped JFC keep ATKMB’s bevy of attacking talent quiet.

“His (Pronay’s) performance the other night was outstanding. We know he is a committed player. I have said to him that when you are in a situation where you have received a card, you must use all your experience to know when to go for a challenge and when not. And he did that after being booked in the 10th minute.”

No to more foreigners

Like at Chennaiyin FC, whom Coyle steered from the bottom of the standings to the 2019-20 final, a clutch of Indian players have got better on his watch. Such as midfielders Jitendra Singh, Boris Singh, Komal Thatal and Das whom India head coach Igor Stimac said he would call for the preparatory camp for the Asian Cup qualifiers in Kolkata in May.

“I think as a foreign coach, you have an obligation to try and improve and help the national team,” said Coyle. Young Indians such as Bengaluru FC’s Roshan Singh, Mobashir Rahman at JFC wouldn’t have got a chance had the number of imports not been reduced to four this term, he said. “I am not comfortable with keeping foreigners that prevent Indians to develop. I think it’s been a good balance this year.”

Indian players, he said, are receptive and want to get better. “Ritwick said the other day, Owen is a very demanding coach and he is right. I always think of football as a ladder. If I have young players who improve and move up a few rungs up the ladder, I am not going to allow them to drop back. I have worked at a very high level; I am not going to compromise my standards. So, I am going to push these lads to get to those standards and they have all responded.”

It has contributed to JFC pressing better. Coyle said they couldn’t do it his way last term because JFC didn’t have the personnel. He puts it down to work before the season. “I go back to my time when we took Burnley into the Premier League. We used the fewest players in The Championship and my players played 61 games that year. That was because of the work we did in the pre-seasons. And that’s what we did with these boys.”

Coyle’s contract ends this term but returning to JFC isn’t a done deal. Yet. “I only know two things: football and family. And if I am honest, it’s been a real challenge the last two years in the bio-bubble, being away from everybody. I have loved every minute of it (at JFC) but what I now have to do after the next week or so is sit down with the family and have a chat. I have two young grandchildren,” he said.

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